At Aussie Open, ESPN Expands Access To Enhance American-Less Coverage

The 2011 Australian Open kept ESPN on the air for more than 100 hours of live coverage over 14 days Down Under. With early exits by the marquee Americans, the network had plenty of room to flex its creative muscle, highlighting new camera positions, storylines, and even unprecedented behind-the-velvet-ropes access that made this year’s Australian Open truly a sight to be seen.

“Australia, as the industry calls it, is the happy Slam,” says Jamie Reynolds, VP of event production for ESPN. It’s summertime there, “so we’re selling viewers on the virtual winter break. The philosophy that we carry out of Australia is a fun, invigorating, inviting environment.”

A Soccer-Type Crowd
Adding to that invigorating environment is the diversity of the Melbourne area. With more than 100 nationalities represented in the areas surrounding the city, the fans define the Australian Open more than is the case with the other Slams. National pride is so intense, Reynolds says, that the crowd resembles that of a soccer match more than a tennis match.

“When you see national flags, people painting their face in national team colors, and you get the chanting and the songs, it changes the complexion of the matches,” Reynolds explains. “When you look at all of those ingredients of nationalistic pride, the fever pitch of a soccer match coming together at the outdoor stadiums and chanting back and forth, it’s a phenomenal experience. It’s almost electric. I hope that we captured a lot of that.”

Rigging Up Spidercam
To help capture more of that electricity, Reynolds’s team arranged to have the Spidercam aerial camera system installed at Rod Laver Arena, the same system that ESPN used last August at the US Open. Working with Tennis Australia and host broadcaster Channel 7 Australia, the network treated audiences to some sweeping views of the action, although the height constraints of the stadium roof brought both challenges and opportunities.

“Some of the roof superstructure inhibited some of the flight path,” Reynolds says. “But, from a broadcaster’s standpoint, that’s actually better for us because it forced us to be closer and more intimate.”

Making the installation easier was the fact that Spidercam had already been used in Rod Laver Arena, for a Kylie Minogue concert, so the installation procedure was less trial-and-error than it had been in New York.

Behind the Scenes and in the Tunnels
New for this year’s coverage was an unprecedented level of access that ESPN was granted to take its ENG crews backstage. From the training facility and weight rooms to locker rooms and tunnels, ESPN was allowed to explore what life is like for athletes at the Australian Open by following them into areas that were formerly off access to broadcasters.

“We saw, for the first time at this major, things like what it’s like to stand in a hallway warming up for six minutes and then running down to the court with your iPod on,” Reynolds points out. “You’re living with the athletes behind the scenes, in the moment before the major moment. That’s something truly unique. It’s almost like the access NFL Films has with the NFL or [HBO] 24/7 had with the [NHL] Winter Classic. You’re getting a chance to explore what typically is an individual’s world.”

That all-access was especially pertinent to this year’s event, when all the top American singles players bowed out early. With the big-name stars gone from the lineup, ESPN had to work to keep the casual tennis fan engaged.

“It forces you to open up your mind and think differently when you have other personalities being on a trajectory of success for these events,” Reynolds says. “It helps us to expand the way we approach the events.”

Helping expand ESPN’s approach was an eight-channel Orad MVP sports-graphics system. It allowed ESPN to use seven inputs and one output to expand the number of courts on which the specialty graphics could be applied.

“We can now use our Orad MVP system to a much larger extent on the outside-court matches and create better highlights than we’ve done before when we were really relegated to using it on the primary television courts,” Reynolds says.

A Marathon Event
Few events on the sports landscape last as long and create as many broadcast hours as the Australian Open, so Reynolds and his team have found some creative ways to keep the production crew motivated for 14 days straight.

“You’ve got to recruit people that have a vested interest in the sport,” he begins. “Fortunately, we’ve put a kind of family unit together. We have split shifts [with] eight hours for a day crew and eight hours for a night crew. To keep them invested, we’ve started a rotation of personnel, taking them through the highlight operation, working at the Orad station, working in graphics, and actually producing matches.”

The three- to four-day rotation enables the members of the production team to learn each production station, so that they learn to think on different levels. Understanding how graphics and tape work, for example, enables producers to think about pairing specific graphics with specific highlights to tell a better story.

“It’s the idea of freshness,” Reynolds points out. “You try to rotate them through all the different positions to give them experience. They stay fresh, they feel invested, and they’re getting a stronger base of how the entire production works.”

As much as possible, he likes to keep his production team together across all four Grand Slam events, so keeping the team engaged for 14 days requires a marathon-endurance mentality. Luckily, Reynolds says, with this team, he has found just that.

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